What You Need to Know About the Muslim Brotherhood
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"Changed by the system"?
By the 1990s, despite the off-again, on-again repression by Mubarak's regime, the Brotherhood had completed what many observers say was a transformation. Step by step, its leadership renounced its violent past, engaged in politics, and tried to reinvent itself as a collection of community organizers who operated clinics and food banks, building a network of Islamic banks and companies. Writing last week in Foreign Affairs, Carrie Rosefsky Wickham noted: "Although the Brotherhood entered the political system in order to change it, it ended up being changed by the system." In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats—20 percent of the Parliament—and probably could have won even more had it run more candidates.
All of a sudden, the Brothers had emerged as Egypt's most potent opposition force. Though they still faced the wrath of the secret police—and in last year's parliamentary elections, the game was so rigged that the Brotherhood virtually opted out—they became vocal supporters of liberalizing Egypt's calcified system, and it made common cause with other pro-democracy groups.
Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on political Islam, is optimistic that the Brotherhood has evolved from its fundamentalist roots: "Their agenda is to make Egypt better," he told Salon recently. "And their conception of what's good and bad has a religious basis. So that means increasing religious observance, religious knowledge. It also means probably drawing more heavily on the Islamic legal heritage for Egypt's laws. They don't want to necessarily completely convert Egypt into a traditional Islamic legal system. But if the Parliament's going to pass a law, they want it to be consistent with Islamic law." No doubt many officials and members of the Muslim Brotherhood would endorse this characterization.
But it's also fair to ask if Brown's interpretation is too charitable. In 2007, the Brotherhood released a draft political program that included several very troubling proposals, including the idea that Egypt's government be overseen by an unelected council of Islamic scholars who would measure the country's laws against the Koran and sharia to make sure governance would "conform to Islamic law." Since then, various Muslim Brotherhood officials have also made conflicting statements about anything from the role of women to the treatment of non-Muslim minorities.
In the end, there's no getting around the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is, if not an anachronism, a profoundly reactionary force. Its views on marriage, the family, homosexuality, and the like are distasteful to most Western minds and many Egyptian ones. And it harbors a strong current of overt anti-Semitism, along with a penchant for conspiracy theories. Despite Egypt's drift toward a more conservative Islamic outlook since the 1970s—which paralleled similar trends across the Muslim world—the Egyptian people, especially the middle class, may in the end not be receptive to the Brotherhood's message.
It's also worth remembering that when the Egyptian uprising began in January, the Muslim Brotherhood was not among the leaders. At the forefront of the movement were young Egyptians, including those organized around a popular Facebook page memorializing the murder of a young man named Khaled Said in Alexandria. They were joined by a panoply of secular, socialist, Nasserite, and pro-democracy groups, and eventually by Mohammad ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nearly all of the movement has been relentlessly secular, though it admittedly gained a great deal of momentum when the Muslim Brotherhood—which had initially held back—threw its weight behind the protests.
So Could They Take Over Egypt?
Because the Muslim Brotherhood is still a secretive, cell-based organization, and because it operates mostly underground, there are no reliable estimates either of its strength or its potential electoral base. Analysts have placed its membership as low as 100,000 nationwide and as high as a million or more. Similarly, some experts say that in a free and fair election the Brothers would win as little as 10 percent of the vote or as much as 20 to 40 percent—and their share will probably be higher the sooner the election is held, since they are by far the best-organized force at the moment.